When a spur-of-the-moment trip turns sour, a dry cabin offers reprieve
The hammering rain started at 10 p.m. It dampened the mosquitoes, but it didn’t make the alder forest less thick. Nor did it make the approaching darkness go away. Cathy and I still had a thousand feet of bushwhacking and mud descent into Crow Creek. From there it would be an hour climb on a trail to the Crow Pass Cabin where we had no reservations, no food and no dry clothing.
It was my punishment for winging it. Thinking my mountain ability would make it work out. I was due for a humbling.
My regular work of mountain guiding in remote regions of Alaska requires detailed planning, checklists made and checked, and double-checked and checked again. On my free time, I sometimes crave the opposite. To do no planning, to have no expectations and to just go see what happens. It didn’t work so well this time and my wife got drug into it.
At seven on a September Saturday morning I suggested to my Cathy, “How about hiking from Hiland Road to Girdwood?” I described the cross-country route we’d take. The red and green fields of tundra, the easy hike up Flute Glacier, how we’d make it to Girdwood for beers at the Silvertip Grill in time to hitch back to Anchorage.
We hiked out of the South Fork trailhead at 9 a.m., wearing running shoes, carrying small packs with food, water, crampons, and raincoat and pants. Along the trail we heard a drizzly chorus of caterpillar poop raining on dry leaves. The valley was experiencing a caterpillar feeding frenzy as they chowed every leaf. Sometimes a caterpillar fell from a bush and landed in Cathy’s hair. She’d brush it away, leaving a green smear. That should have been our cue to turn around.
In early afternoon we descended a south-facing slope from the top of the Flute Glacier. The scree became steeper, until we down-climbed vertical cliffs of rotten rock. The hike around Grizzly Lake was vibrant with fall colors and aqua glacier water, but dark clouds gathered above us. By the time we crossed Steamroller Pass, the clouds were unleashing their soggy load.
We reached the Crow Pass Cabin at midnight. As I opened the door an inhabitant lurched up and shrieked like he’d seen a ghost. Cathy and I were soaked and cold. The ghost viewer allowed us to use his stove for hot water. For the next five hours we snuggled for warmth under a pack cover clutching hot water bottles.
Before sunrise we hiked down the Crow Pass Trail and hitched to the Girdwood Tesoro where we dined on Bahama Mama hot dogs and 24-ounce coffees. It was the best breakfast in my life.
Then we hitched back to Anchorage.
Here’s what I should have done instead.
First of all, it feels like a career dent to be telling anyone about this fiasco, but it happened, so I might as well learn from it. The biggest take away is to not rush trip planning. A big hike like this one requires a couple hours of route planning, gear prep and making sure it aligns with the group. I should have had a real emergency shelter like the SOL Emergency Bivvy from REI for $17. Also an umbrella for the caterpillars.